Kit Car, Barry Collyer September 1999
Arguably one of the most beautiful examples of late ‘30s styling, the SS100 lives on in the reincarnation from Suffolk Sportscars. But, like the stunning looking woman who may be great as a mistress, would you really want to live with her on an everyday basis? Barry Collyer gets to give one of his mistresses a 7-day trial marriage!
The only way to appreciate a car’s all round ability is to test for as long as possible and in as many varied conditions as possible. That was my excuse recently with the Suffolk SS100.
Certainly, with "beauty being in the eye of the beholder", anyone contemplating the purchase of their ideal car to build can eliminate 90% of what’s available on visual grounds alone. Cost is another very important factor of course but then, if the desire for a particular model is strong enough, I for one, would probably part with more cash than was perhaps, sensible. But then, when has being sensible ever been relevant to having a mistress!
These first two dilemmas are easily sorted by a visit to a major show or to the manufacturer to look at the cars in detail, test drive a demonstrator and do the necessary arithmetic. Club owners are also a useful source of information on which to base a decision, but they will probably be biased in favour of the car that they have, if only to justify their choice. You would hardly expect the owner standing proudly beside his creation to tell you the thing was noisy, rattly, unreliable and a pig to build. So all you have left now is your own impression after a limited test drive. This (hopefully from the manufacturer’s point of view) would be on a fine day, top down, wind in the hair, etc., where any shortcomings would be concealed or overlooked by the sheer pleasure of the experience. But what is it like when it is raining, cold, or just sitting boiling in a traffic jam on the M25? In other words, would the lady stand up to the rigours of everyday life at the kitchen sink? Anyway, enough of the sexist remarks, here is what the SS100 is like to live with - well for a week anyway.
If pre-war elegance in the shape of an open sports car is your idea of great motoring then the Suffolk SS100 must be high on your list of options.
The original SS100 was one of the most beautiful of the creations from the partnership of Sir William Lyons and William Walmsley. Co founders of SS Cars. This pedigree, plus a very short production run of 314 cars, due to the outbreak of WW2, was destined to catapult the SS100 into that expensive rarefied atmosphere of desirability and exclusivity.
With approximately 270 original cars surviving world wide and fetching well into six figures for a good example, the Suffolk replica seems an excellent alternative.
A BIT OF HISTORY
This car and its many beautiful chrome embellishments was originally created by the skilful hands of Terry Rowing, head man of TRAC Products, part of whose business is the restoration and supply of top quality reproduction parts for not only the original SS cars, but other marques including Cobra replicas. He first started producing high quality aluminium bodied replicas of the SS100 to run along side his restoration business using mostly original parts from dead SS cars or from any other car of the period that used common parts. As the source of original parts would inevitably dry up, it was then decided to offer the replica in component form, part built or fully built to your spec. It was now available with a GRP body tub and wings with louvered aluminium 4-piece bonnet based on a new chassis with XJ6 running gear.
It certainly seemed a logical step especially as many of the parts are interchangeable with the genuine article. The market for his products would then expand from the limited number of owners of original cars to a far larger market of new owners. The replica is within millimetres of the real thing! However, legend has it that the marketing of the product took second place to the very busy production of parts and restorations and so the whole venture just ticked over with limited public awareness.
Finally in 1995, the SS100 replica manufacturing side of the business was acquired by Roger Williams. The project is in safe and experienced hands and is now operating from delightful premises near Bury St Edmunds in the heart of Suffolk.
On visiting the company with Peter Coxhead and Steve Hole to collect the demonstrator, we were all struck with the quality and quiet air of efficiency. You could eat your dinner off the floors and even the cars part way through being built looked immaculate. The highly experienced team, all experts in their own field, (especially at regularly making coffee) enlightened us on some of the more detailed and skilled aspects of SS100 production, especially the manufacture of the seat backs which are handmade in wood, curved and laminated in the traditional way.
Even the new, all aluminium radiator, is a work of art in its own right. And of course, as Terry Rowing’s company still supplies most of the chrome work, the quality of these components is exemplary.
I was immediately impressed with the overall quality of the car. The attention to detail and the lengths that the company have gone to in order to reproduce parts exactly to the original spec., even down to the dash mounted fuel tap that has no function now other than to look authentic. I have very occasionally seen real SS100s and the Suffolk or TRAC replicas many times in the past but they never fail to impress whenever I am reacquainted with either one.
Designing a car in the late ‘30s must have been the complete opposite to today’s legislation led constrictions. Now we fit a given number of Euro-sized bodies into a protected crumple zone, add one engine in as tight a space as possible and then let a computer encase the whole thing in a steel shell.
With the SS100 it seems as though there was a desire to create a stylish sports car with elegant, flowing lines, add a thumping great engine up front with the ultimate in accessibility and then, if a couple of people could squeeze into it, all well and good.
And that is how it remains today. The car is fairly large at 12 foot 6 inches long by 5 foot 2 inches wide but deduct the width of the enormous running boards and wings and you have a cockpit only 3 foot 3½ inches wide at the shoulders and fairly narrow foot wells. However, I am just over 6 foot 2 inches with fairly big feet and I have no trouble at all in getting comfortable. In fact, although the seats are sited on top of the chassis, you still sit fairly low within the car. The dashboard is right up in front of you and my eye line was nicely positioned halfway up the screen, as opposed to having to look over the top screen rail or crouching, in order to look through it, as is the case in many period style roadster kits.
When the windscreen is folded flat, the aeroscreens are also in the perfect position to do the job they were intended for. Even with the hood up, I still have about 3" of headroom which is far more in fact than in my Volvo. I would therefore suggest that anyone up to 6 foot 4 inches would have no trouble at all, but dainty feet would be an advantage!
ON THE ROAD
This new demonstrator was thoroughly checked over and made ready, and so, with hood down, screen flat and my not so dainty little feet tucked in the foot well, I bade farewell to Suffolk Sportscars and headed back down the M11 on a searing hot Friday afternoon …… Bliss!
It is three years since we last tested a Suffolk SS100 and I must admit that I had forgotten just how great these cars are. The handling still came as a bit of a shock initially, not that it was in anyway bad, but just how vintage it feels considering that all the running gear is from a relatively modern XJ6.
The car seems to have all the plus points of driving a period car but without any of the shortcomings such as mechanical brakes, vague steering or agricultural gearboxes. This simply means that the car can be enjoyed to the full in modern traffic conditions without worry. It may look very period by today’s standards but it is far superior to the original cars.
The car has everything you could wish for in a period sports car. It looks right from any angle, the view along the vast bonnet has to be experienced to be believed and most importantly, it is great fun to drive. Of course, the steering wheel is close to the chest in traditional style so no straight arm driving techniques here, but the cutaway doors allow unrestricted elbow room and the gear lever falls perfectly to hand.
The four speed Jaguar manual gear box with Laycock electric overdrive on fourth in an excellent choice. The car can be supplied to suit the Jaguar auto boxes of course but the XJ6 four speed manual unit is a perfect match. It is modern enough to be easy to use with synchro on all forward gears but just has that long throw and slightly notchy feel to compliment this type of car. Operated by a pull switch on the dashboard, the electric overdrive is sited just to the left of the steering wheel and can be used at virtually any road speed in top.
This particular unit was quick at disengaging but slower to engage. In fact, once switched in, momentarily backing off the throttle would induce it to engage immediately. It sounds complicated but was very easy and virtually indiscernible in practice.
Getting the feel for the steering and handling, as mentioned earlier, was simply a matter of re-acquainting myself with the characteristics of crossply tyres. A few minutes on some nice winding country roads in Suffolk soon had that sorted. I had almost forgotten how forgiving crossply tyres can be. They may not have the ultimate grip of a radial but they will give ample warning long before they reach the limits of adhesion. Even when pushed hard, the front of the car would go exactly where it was pointed and the back would drift a little but with the slightest correction bringing it back into line without any drama.
So far all this has been in perfect weather conditions, but what if it is not so good? Within two days of collecting the car, the weather broke and gave me an ideal opportunity to test the wet weather gear.
One very neat little accessory now available from Suffolk Sportscars is a pair of wind wings that simply clip to the side of the windscreen pillars with lift-the-dot fasteners. They can be fitted or removed literally in seconds and, like many good ideas, it is the sheer simplicity that makes them so effective. They also fit the original cars without modification.
These wind wings cut down buffeting a fair amount and are a valuable addition to improve creature comfort on a long journey or in cold weather. They can be used with or without the hood in position.
A masterpiece of engineering, the hood and frame are permanently fitted to the rear and sides of the cockpit and when folded back is covered by a neat hood bag. Raising the hood is just a matter of pulling it over to meet the screen rail, fastening with two over centre catches and attaching two small side flaps with press studs. A very quick operation if you’re caught in a downpour.
The tonneau cover can also be a permanent fitting, and here is the real bonus, the hood and tonneau can be used simultaneously to effectively seal the cockpit with only the right side of the driver exposed. This combination proved invaluable on the run back to Suffolk in the wet, especially when passing juggernaughts in conditions reminiscent of powerboat racing. Even the little windscreen wipers coped admirably under the circumstances.
With the hood up, vision is excellent all round. The deep screen and the open hood sides afford an almost panoramic view of about 270 degrees. Elliptical, convex rear view mirrors give good visibility behind and the wing top side lights adequately mark the car’s width extremities.
Night driving was one aspect I was also keen to look at. Here too, the car proved very user friendly. This was due in part to good visibility coupled with excellent headlamp illumination and the big, clearly lit instruments. Even the side lights with their red tell-tails again making the positioning of the car in the dark an easy task. In fact, although the headlamps were very good on main beam, it was the dip beam that had particularly good illumination of the road ahead without causing any annoyance to oncoming traffic. Better than many current production cars I have driven.
When viewed from the rear, the hood looks a little quaint with its wide top and narrow waist but even this has a practical aspect other than just cosmetic. When stationary in the car in the pouring rain, the wide overhang of the hood top acts like an umbrella and again the cockpit remains dry at least if there are no cross winds and the rain comes down vertically.
With the heater at full blast and fully intent on removing the hairs from my left leg, the cockpit remained warm and cosy at least below waist level. The heater is very effective with the hood either up or down. Of course, most of this macho-man against the elements stuff is irrelevant if side screens are fitted. On this car there were none but they are usually fitted to customers cars. It does genuinely mean the car can be used as every day transport without too much compromise should you so wish. It is restricted only by the risk you are prepared to take when parking and leaving the car for any length of time.
It is almost certain that with side screens fitted, the car would be extremely cosy. There is more than adequate room in the cockpit for two people, both width wise and fore and aft. The passenger foot well is especially comfortable. The interior is trimmed in leather and Wilton carpet to a very high standard and the seats, also in leather, are comfortable even though they seem a little upright at first.
In spite of its period layout, the dashboard ergonomics are actually effective and user friendly. The silver instruments are both clearly positioned and easy to read. They indicate speed, revs, amps, water temp, fuel level and oil pressure. The oil pressure is right in front of you, between the two main instruments.
There are dash mounted switches for head, side and tail lights including instrument illumination; heater blower, wipers and overdrive. Warning lights cover direction indicators, head beam and ignition. An under-dash column mounted stalk switch covers functions such as horn, direction indicators, headlamp dip and flash. Tucked away under the dash initially seemed to be an awkward place to fit such an important control but being a modern switch it had to be out of sight. It only took a few minutes of regular use and the left hand soon found it first time, every time.
The position of the instruments and switches are all predetermined in the body with holes already marked on the dashboard. The company have followed the exact layout of the original cars even to the correct style of switchgear. Although they are all in the correct position, they do not necessarily control the same functions as in the original cars.
The dashboard photo shows the current function of each switch with the bracketed legends indicating a 1938 original set up. Obviously, anyone can modify the switch functions to achieve even more authenticity if required.
Apart from the dummy fuel tap, the curly fuel tank breather is about the only other item on the car that is for visual purposes only and of no practical use. The slab fuel tank is a glass fibre shell and an integral part of the body tub. It covers the 14 gallon steel tank and leaves a very useful boot area above it. This is concealed by a carpeted, hinged and lockable panel.
I will leave the accompanying photos to show off the overall lines of the car and the intricacy of the chrome fittings but suffice to say, a fully dressed up Suffolk SS100 would be almost impossible to distinguish from the original unless you looked past the dummy brake drums and friction shocks at the modern XJ6 suspension or opened the bonnet to reveal a Jaguar 4.2 six instead of an old OHV Standard unit.
After well over 400 miles of country lanes, A-roads, the M11 and the dreaded M25, I had experienced most road conditions in the seven days of the test. It showed no vices whatsoever other than the occasional "Tramlining" associated with crossplies on badly repaired surfaces or worn grooves on motorways. This only meant that a little more concentration on straight line guidance was required as and when these surfaces were encountered.
So, apart from lying about how fast she is, could this be a lady I would live with every day of the week? ...... YES!